A few thoughts on art history from a Hebridean perspective

by Murdo Macdonald - June 2020

I had hoped to give a talk at Horshader, but the pandemic has made that impossible, so here are a few of the things I might have mentioned.

There is an image by the geographer Arthur Geddes that takes a Hebridean point of view. It was published in 1948 to accompany his seminal paper, The ‘Outer’ Hebrides, a paper in which he redefines centre and periphery. From his Hebridean viewpoint both Scotland and Europe are seen as part of the planet itself, in an ecological vision extending from Scandinavia to Africa. If we fly across this image (so to speak) one of the first places we come to is Ardroil in Lewis where the chess pieces were found. Instead of seeing Lewis as a place on the edge, Arthur Geddes’s perspective allows us to see it at the heart of medieval European trade routes, and chess pieces in this location in the middle of the twelfth century begin to make considerable sense. The more so when we observe that although these pieces were probably made in Norway, we can see from the side details on several of the thrones aspects of the decoration that are distinctly Celtic. Perhaps these works were on their way to the retinue of the Lord of the Isles, perhaps they were on their way to the Mediterranean (as

Ridley Scott’s use of them in his crusader movie, Kingdom of Heaven, would suggest). Whatever the story the decoration reflects the interplay of Norse and Celtic cultures which defined so much of Scotland and Ireland of the period.

Arthur Geddes 

Another of the places we come to early on from Arthur Geddes’s viewpoint are the standing stones of Calanais. Dating from four or five thousand years ago. They are early examples of the human desire to make art from the careful placing of stones, a desire that one finds expressed again in the Zen gardens of Japan from the fifteenth century onwards, for example those designed by the Buddhist artist-monk Sesshu. In the twentieth-century one finds such stone-placing again at Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay near Edinburgh. A recent example of such prehistoric resonance is the design of An Suileachan (the warning, the lesson, the eye-opener), a monument to land struggle designed by Will Maclean and Marion Leven with masonry by James Crawford. It was erected in 2012 overlooking Reef, only twenty miles or so by road from Calanais and about half that distance by sea.

An Suileachan by Will Maclean and Marian Leven

That is only the most recent of Will Maclean’s land struggle memorials in Lewis, but all of them make reference to much earlier architectural and sculptural traditions. For example the first, which was erected at Balallan in 1994, has a form which brings to mind Carloway broch. It marks the actions of the deer raiders of 1887 and in such monuments one re-encounters in stark terms the late nineteenth century clash between landlord and people. That theme runs through much of Maclean’s work. It helps us to understand the parameters of stereotypical ‘wilderness’ images of the Highlands such as The Monarch of the Glen, made by the English animal painter, Edwin Landseer. Where Landseer’s deer and the estate surrounding it existed to serve the sport of wealthy people who did not need the venison for food, Maclean’s structures are symbolic of all those threatened communities who needed to eat the deer for survival but were denied that necessity. A little before the Balallan cairn was erected, Will Maclean made a remarkable painting addressing these Highland issues entitled Emigrant Ship (1992). Central to it is the image of a window that is evocative of loss of people and culture, namely the east window of Croick Church in Sutherland. On this window the evicted tenants of Glencalvie, taking refuge in the churchyard in May 1845, scratched messages of despair. In that work Maclean brings the Croick window image together with graffiti of an emigrant ship scratched on the wall of a deserted schoolhouse in a cleared settlement in Mull. But reflected in the window is another emigrant ship, this one firmly embedded not only in Highland history but in the history of Scottish art, for it makes reference to a series of emigrant ship paintings made by William McTaggart in the 1890s. Thus Maclean invokes the history of Scottish art in his exploration of Scottish historical and contemporary issues.

William McTaggart The Storm 1890 Natioanl Galleries of Scotland
William McTaggart Sailing of the Emigrant Ship 1895 National Gallery of Scotland

The best known of McTaggart’s works on the theme of emigration is The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship painted in 1895. This remarkable painting, part of the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, looks back to McTaggart’s own experience of emigration from the communities he knew in Kintyre during his childhood. McTaggart was not only the artist who opened up the possibilities of modern art for other Scottish artists, he was also a Gaelic speaker. This opens up another perspective on how art relates to the Highlands, for the modern art of Scotland is thus found to be firmly driven by the work of a man rooted in the Gàidhealtachd. Particularly illuminating are three paintings he made in the 1890s. Along with The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, McTaggart painted The Coming of St Columba and The Storm. Between them these three paintings reflect Highland history from the early days of Christianity to the threat to communities posed by emigration. The heart of the three paintings is The Storm. It is both an experimental work of 1890s art and a reflection of the dangerous realities of life in the fishing communities of Kintyre, in this instance Carradale.

Malcolm Macdonald The Open Sea Museum nan Eilean

It is no surprise to find other Highland artists painting the sea. Another of particular note was Malcolm MacDonald (1879-1965) from Stornoway. He trained at Glasgow School of Art, and in works such as The Open Sea showed his quality. He also helped Edward Dwelly with his Gaelic dictionary, both as an illustrator and a language informant. He went on to have a successful career as an etcher of maritime scenes in Canada. His work was shown at An Lanntair in Stornoway in 2008, and The Open Sea is in the collection of Museum nan Eilean. Another notable painter of the sea and its workers in the first half of the twentieth century was the self-taught Angus Morrison (1872-1942) whose paintings, thanks to the efforts of Finlay Macleod and Mary Smith were given their first public showing in July 2006 at An Lanntair. In 2010, working along with Arthur Watson, I was able to show two of those works as 

part of an exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, Uinneag Dhan Àird an Iar: Ath-lorg Ealain na Gàidhealtachd / Window to the West: the Rediscovery of Highland Art. Had Angus Morrison lived in St Ives like Alfred Wallis or in Donegal like James Dixon his quality would have been recognised long before now. One of Angus Morrison’s relatives was the photographer Dan Morrison whose body of work is recorded in the book Nis Aosmhor first published by Acair in 1997 and issued in a new edition in 2019. That work allows one to situate, from a local perspective, the work of visiting photographers of the Western Isles such as Robert Moyes Adam, Violet Banks, Werner Kissling and Paul Strand.

Angus Morrison Fishing Boats near Ness Private Collection
Donald Smith Dearg agus Gorm 1985
Ian Stephen studio 1998_9

The work of Ian Stephen makes an intriguing comparison. His work often takes the form of a visual essay balanced by carefully chosen words, for example his artist’s book Broad Bay (1997) is a meditation on a place, a way of life, a method of construction and the forces which dictate the course of a boat. Looking at the clinker-built boats that Stephen explored in his work in the late 1990s reminds one that boats of this type of construction have been a subject for Highland artists for well over five hundred years. The West Highland galley is one of the earliest distinctly Highland representational subjects, and can be found in the carvings of the West Highland school of sculpture from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. A fine example is in the church at Rodel in Harris. The work of this school is one of the major survivals of pre-Reformation art in Scotland. A key workshop for the

school was Iona, an extraordinary place of cultural production. Iona’s importance for colourist artists is well known but that colourism finds its expression not simply in painters such as John Duncan, S. J. Peploe, F. C. B. Cadell and John Maclauchan Milne in the early twentieth century, but also in that most colouristic of all Celtic manuscripts, The Book of Kells, made in Iona over one thousand years earlier. The significance of Iona for the art of our own time has been maintained by Mhairi Killin, whose installation work is strongly influenced by techniques deriving from both textiles and jewellery. In her remarkable artist’s book, Absent Voices, which links to the exhibition of the same name held at An Tobar in Mull, Killin explores a Hebridean territory of loss of culture and language.

Both Mhairi Killin and Will Maclean were part of the group of artists involved in An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic, a remarkable project uniting visual art, poetry, typography and calligraphy that toured the world after being launched in 2002. The book went into a second edition in 2008. Such strongly visually-conscious publications have an important place in any consideration of Highland art. Earlier examples are the publications of William Maclellan which included George Bain’s remarkable visual analyses of Celtic art (1951) and Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (1956) illustrated by J. D. Fergusson with ogham inspired designs. Most important of all Maclellan’s publications was Sorley MacLean’s Dain do Eimhir (1943) with images and cover by William Crosbie (1915-1999). Maclellan is a hard act to follow but equally significant work came around the year 2000 from the editorial skill of Alec

Finlay, whose folios and edited books – not least those in the Pocket Book series – have made a real contribution to visualising the Highlands and Islands. Outstanding here is Unravelling the Ripple (2001) by Helen Douglas, an intense and detailed view of the tideline of the Isle of Muck. Such intensity of view puts one in touch with the subject of art as part of a very immediate engagement with the environment rather than something that one surveys and represents from a distant perspective. Such focus is characteristic of many artists working in the Hebrides, not least those who use peat in their work, such as Jon Macleod.

William Crosbie cover image for Dain do Eimhir by Sorley MacLean
Mhairi Killin Absent Voice 2009
Helen Douglas Unravelling the Ripple 2001 

There is, of course, much more to say, but I hope there are some useful starting points here. My own starting point for this text is a talk I gave at the University of Stirling in 2006. For the full talk given then see: https://murdomacdonald.wordpress.com/art-maps-and-books-visualising-and-re-visualising-the-highlands/

Related material can be found in my lecture given at An Lanntair, Stornoway, in 2008. https://murdomacdonald.wordpress.com/art-and-the-highlands-2008/

With respect to Gaelic this may also be of interest: https://murdomacdonald.wordpress.com/alphabet-colour-gaidhealtachd-an-ecology-of-mind/

And more generally, not least with respect to artists who use peat:

https://murdomacdonald.wordpress.com/five-essays-into-highland-space/

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